Half a War

As you know, I was more than a little worried when it was announced that Joe Abercrombie would be writing a YA series. Having established himself as one of grimdark's most popular voices, I was concerned that switching gears to appeal to a different market could well take away most of what made the author's books so enjoyable. Thankfully, though it may not have been Abercrombie doing what he does best, both Half a King and Half the World remained brutal, engaging, entertaining, and satisfying fantasy novels featuring an interesting and endearing band of misfits.

I was curious to see how Abercrombie would close the show. And, more importantly, if he could do so with style and aplomb. Well, I'm glad to report that he managed to do just that! In the end, Half a War is the least YA installment of the series.

Here's the blurb:

Words are weapons

Princess Skara has seen all she loved made blood and ashes. She is left with only words. But the right words can be as deadly as any blade. She must conquer her fears and sharpen her wits to a lethal edge if she is to reclaim her birthright.

Only half a war is fought with swords

The deep-cunning Father Yarvi has walked a long road from crippled slave to king’s minister. He has made allies of old foes and stitched together an uneasy peace. But now the ruthless Grandmother Wexen has raised the greatest army since the elves made war on God, and put Bright Yilling at its head – a man who worships no god but Death.

Sometimes one must fight evil with evil

Some – like Thorn Bathu and the sword-bearer Raith – are born to fight, perhaps to die. Others – like Brand the smith and Koll the wood-carver – would rather stand in the light. But when Mother War spreads her iron wings, she may cast the whole Shattered Sea into darkness.

Half a King was a very slim volume, the shortest written by Abercrombie thus far. Unfortunately, the smaller wordcount precluded much in the way of worldbuilding. The longer length of the second volume allowed Abercrombie to imbue the series with more depth, and the same can be said of Half a War. Still, it nonetheless features the same tighter focus on the narrative which keeps the pace crisp and this final installment is as much of a page-turner as its predecessors. Most of the action occurs in Throvenland and focuses on Bail's Point. In my review of Half the World, I explained that a few tantalizing glimpses of elf relics and technology hint that this tale might be taking place in a far-future dystopian Earth. I was wondering if Abercrombie would shine some light on the elves and how they disappeared from the world. I can't say that the author offers much in terms of concrete answers, but we do get to visit Strokom. And again, everything hints that those ruins used to be a modern city set in our own world and era. Moreover, it appears that a nuclear strike may have destroyed it and that radiations could still be a hazard. I have no idea if Abercrombie plans on writing additional works set in this universe, but I for one would love to discover more about its past and how the elves disappeared. . .

A number of familiar faces such as Father Yarvi, Koll, Brand, Thorn, and Skifr return in this last volume. As was the case with Half a World, it was nice to see how they have evolved as characters and where fate has taken them. But it's Princess Skara who takes center stage in this book. Her family was betrayed and murdered by agents of the High King and she escaped to Thorlby disguised as a slave. Her only hope now is to rally the High King's enemies to her cause and in so doing change the Shattered Sea forever. Other than Yarvi, I believe that Skara turned out to be one of the most interesting characters of this series. Could have done without the little love affair, though. I particularly loved how crafty Father Yarvi turned out to be. He's no Sand dan Glokta, but he is a devious son of a bitch in his own right, that's for sure. Abercrombie did a good job tying up loose ends and bringing various plot threads from all three volumes together at the end.

As was the case with its two predecessors, though there are no major changes in terms of style and tone compared to the author's "adult" works, Half a War remains different to some extent. Once more, the wit, cynicism, and dark humor that characterize Abercrombie's backlist are all present, if a little subdued. The YA label demands that the violence be not as graphic as usual, with less blood and gore. Half a War is definitely an Abercrombie novel, but again it shows a more self-restrained Joe Abercrombie, one that pulls some of his punches and doesn't go all out the way he did in novels such as Best Served Cold or A Red Country. Overall, although Half a War is the best of the trilogy, it doesn't satisfy the way the grimdark Abercrombie titles usually do.

As I mentioned earlier, this final chapter is the least YA of the bunch. Especially at the end, Joe Abercrombie shows how brilliant he can be and why he's one of the best fantasy writers around today. Just when you thought that the endgame would take place in a certain way, the author pulls the rug from under your feet and turns things around. Half a War provides a truly great ending.

All in all, Half a War is a solid effort and a satisfying conclusion to this series. It offers plenty of unexpected surprises and resolution, yet leaves the door open for future adventures and misadventures for the surviving members of the cast.

The final verdict: 8/10

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